Text Box: William James and Emanuel Swedenborg – 
The Varieties of Religious Experience 

In this current edition of Life of a Mystic we are visiting with two mystics, contrary to previous editions. As Swedenborg is mentioned in several of the essays in this volume, this article will both provide a brief overview of Swedenborg as well as note the potential links between Swedenborg and the Father of American Psychology, William James.

Emanuel Swedenborg - Grandfather of Modern Psychology

In tracing the history of psychology and spirituality and the links that weave between the two, we find Emanuel Swedenborg plays a key role, even though he goes un-noticed by modern day psychologists. A good example of this is found in the connections  between the well known “Father of American Psychology”  William James and that of Swedenborg.

I finally came to Swedenborg after so many other avenues had been explored and I think it helped to see him through the eyes of a fellow Gestalt therapist and psychologist (and mystic), Wilson Van Dusen.  I say this because I am aware the Writings of Swedenborg could be very off putting to many people as they have a heavy theological, repetitive and pedantic style. 

Swedenborg was born in Stockholm Sweden in 1688 in a wealthy, noble and religious family. His father was a bishop and while he was clearly influenced by his fathers love of religion, he had a love for all things scientific in his youth and spent time travelling and living in England - all the time studying. This was an exciting time for a young scientific genius - the Renaissance and the advent of the modern scientific era. His range of study across the physical sciences included mathematics, physics, geology, engineering and mechanics, cosmology, biology and neurology.

By the age of 46 he published his major scientific work of The Mineral Kingdom in three parts, part one being the Pricipia. This was published in the spirit of the time, whereby Nature was seen as a gigantic machine which could be worked out and understood. Having published his philosophical and scientific findings on the world of physical matter, he set out on his next scientific quest, the search for the seat of the soul in body. Some of Swedenborg’s biographers feel this was an unusual shift and even threatened his reputation as one of the world’s leading scientists. 

However if we place ourselves in this era we see that is not fully the case. We can look back with hind sight and see the impact of philosophies such as Rationalism and Empiricism along with Science on religion and belief in the spiritual. However at that time, Newton, Descartes, Kant, Spinoza, Leibniz and British Empiricists such as Locke, Berkeley and Hume all provided philosophical discussion and arguments for the existence of the soul and God. 

So for example, while many saw the philosophy Rationalism by Descartes as being anti-religious at times, we must remember that Descartes in his Fifth Meditation gives his proofs for the existence of God, and later proposes the pineal body as the possible seat of the soul in answer to the mind-body problem. So in many ways it was an understandable for the genius of Swedenborg, having surveyed the mineral kingdom, to now attend to the human body and the search for the soul.

He journeyed to France and Italy and studied anatomy and in particular neurology, and by 1740 published the Oeconimia Regnum Animalis (Organisation of the Soul’s Domain) and by 1744 Regnum Animalis (The Soul’s Domain). The first of these gives a detailed understanding of the brain and the circulatory system including an early understanding of the cerebrum, spinal fluid, conditioned reflexes, and the seat of consciousness in the cortical area of the brain. The second work then looked at the relation of these to the other organs of the body and included a text entitled Rational Psychology.

When I first read Rational Psychology many years ago I was struck by how the work of psychiatrists Carl Jung and Roberto Assagioloi who wrote in the first half of the twentieth century, and the transpersonal psychologists who began in the 19760’s and 70‘s. These later writers of psychology and spirituality were here predated by a work which looked just like my introductory texts in psychology but with additional sections which were clearly transpersonal and spiritual. 

I had thought myself in the 1970’s rather enlightened knowing about this “new” discipline of transpersonal psychology and reading esoteric psychology such as Jung, yet here was a writer from nearly three centuries ago covering the same ground in a holistic manner. 

The table of contents of Rational Psychology gives a taste of the depth and breadth of the psychological theory developed by Swedenborg. His first sections, like most introductory psychology books, deal with perception and the senses. He then attends to sections on imagination, memory reasoning and the intellect. 

Then in the following sections he jumps into areas covered by Jung and Assagioli and treats of the commerce of the soul and the body. He starts first with what he calls the Animus (or lower unconscious mind) which he defines as the part of the mind which is developed in response to the outside stimuli  and sensations and sounds to me like a combination of the learnt behaviours of Skinner along with aspects of Freud’s Id.

He then talks about the development of the Rational Mind or Mens which goes through stages of growth from childhood and has the capabilities of conceptualising,  forming perceptions, symbolising and making choices.


Inner World of Reality

Higher Unconscious mind. Influx of life of Mind and Body

Conscious Mind.

The Life of the Body and its Senses

Outer World of Reality

The Mens relates to the Anima and also the next level of self – the Animus (Pure Intellect). This is the higher unconscious mind which is also in contact through the Soul or Pure Intelligence with the creative life energies of Divine Love and Wisdom (what Jung would term the Collective Unconscious). The Animus intuitively reduces what is given to order, form and harmony and primarily comes into conscious awareness (Mens) through  dreams, meditation, visualisation and imagery and in the outer  world through awareness of arts, science and nature. (Blackmeyer, 1991) 

A significant number of the chapters of Rational Psychology go on to describe influx between the Spiritual Mind (Anima), the Rational Mind (Mens) and the Animus and he then concludes with chapters on topics which he later wrote entire books on, such as Divine Providence, heaven and hell and the state of the soul after death.

At the time of writing this book (1743-1744) we find out from his Journal of Dreams that he was actually experiencing these different states of being through dreams, hypnogic imagery, trance states and meditation. 

He moved beyond this Rational Psychology and dramatically shifted in all his future writings where he devoted himself to providing an understanding of the deeper meaning of the Bible, of writing about the nature of the universe and describing his experiences in the spirit world. 

As such, some writers say Swedenborg shifted from scientist and psychologist to mystic. I think another way of considering this is that Swedenborg remained a psychologist (which is the study of the “psyche” or soul) and shifted his locus of being from a logical scientific mind cut off from the soul, to a state of being which was soul filled and God filled. 

From a Budddhist perspective he achieved Buddhahood. From a Hindu perspective he became united always in heart and counsciousness with Krishna. In Kabbalah teaching he discovered and understood the mystery of God and became as Ayin. From a Christian perspective he became a mystic. 

Emanuel Swedenborg approached psychology and the holy from a perspective of looking from the higher to the lower – of understanding what is below from above – although Swedenborg’s original work was to start like Freud at a biological and neurological level and work upwards. 

What is of interest and not widely known, is that it was the writing of Swedenborg which was to become a great and transformative process for the Henry James, the father of William James, known by many as the Father of American Psychology.

William James - The Father of American Psychology

William James is the first of those in the modern era to take the view of the self and the spiritual from a starting point of modern day psychology. As neither a theologian nor anthropologist but psychologist, he states he must confine himself to the psychological study of religious propensities of man. 

In his classic text The Varieties of Religious Experience, he begins by taking up the case against medical materialism. He proposes that to reduce the visions and experiences of St Paul to epilepsy, St Teresa to hysterics, St Francis of Assisi to hereditary degeneration, George Fox to a disordered colon and Carlyle to  gastro-intestinal cataarh are all too simple minded. 

He argues that every state of being can be said to have an organic component, and do we judge the state of being because of its organic component or due to the experience itself and its fruits in life.

Having taken the medical materialists to task, James then defines his study as the psychological study of religion – with religion being the feelings, acts and experience of an individual in relation to what they consider the divine. Like Evelyn Underhill, he is also interested in the non-conscious aspects of religious experience, what James refers to as the sub-conscious or non-rational mind. These experiences though are just beyond the awareness of Ordinary Waking Consciousness and includes impulses, faiths and needs. 

James is interested in the shift in awareness just below the surface, and the process of conversion by which the divided self of man – choosing between right and wrong and, like St Paul doing one when you realise you must do the other – becomes unified. This is a shift which James put much emphasis on (including two full chapters) wherein one feels initially divided, consciously wrong, inferior and unhappy and through a process of conversion, regeneration, grace or religion, now become unified, consciously right, superior and happy.

The important focus of this is considering not how this happens but what happens, so he is less interested in the experience itself, but the fruits of the experience as the hall mark of religious propensities. It is perhaps this bent which leads him to consider mysticism in a less appealing light. He defines mysticism as having four qualities:

Ineffability. The experience defies expression and requires one to have experienced it to relate about it.
Noetic Quality. These are also states of knowledge and insights into deep truths.
Transience. They seem to last for moments to an hour or two at most and then fade.
Passivity. The will seems as if in abeyance and the person feels as if grasped or held by a superior power.

James then delineates different degrees of the mystic state beginning with a deeper understanding of reality to Déjà vu and a change of mood to those states which begin to appear pathological. He takes an interesting detour into the effects of nitrous oxide, ether and chloroform and alcohol on states of consciousness and the mystical experience. He sees alcohol unquestionably holding sway over mankind because of its power to stimulate the mystical powers of the mind, which he says are “usually crushed to earth by the cold facts and dry criticisms of the sober hour.”

James then turns to the systematic cultivation of mystical experience through Hindu and Sufi practices and then treats of the system of Orison in the Catholic church. He mentions how mystics are not often well received in the Catholic church and how Protestantism seems to have abandoned it.. He says with the absence of mysticism to such a degree in Western religion, -

“It has been left to out mind-curers to reintroduce methodical mediation into our religious life.”

The Varieties of Religious Experience
William James, page 392

While providing a brief yet revealing overview of the Christian mystics and the great achievement of mystics overall in union with the Absolute, he then goes on to return mysticism to the light of ordinary day.  Mystical experience may well have authority over those whom experience them but there it stops. 

They have no authority to be accepted uncritically by those who stand outside them. The negative sides to mysticism is the tendency for schools and traditions to be established which become self-indulgent within the Christian church, and there are diabolical mystical experiences which are pathological. 

Hence all mystical experience must be sifted and tested and run the gauntlet of confrontation, and the value must be ascertained by empirical methods by non-mystics, such as James himself. He concludes by restating that non-mystics are under no obligation to acknowledge mystical states as a superior authority.

James talks of mysticism as a quite separate phenomena to the spiritual experiences of split mind, conversion and saintliness which he seems much more at home with. He talks of “mystcisim” as one who classifies himself as a “non-mystic’.  

While he speaks of these shifts in awareness as being psychological and just outside of waking consciousness, mystical states somehow take on the fabric of a whole new universe in James’s writing – they become totally different states of consciousness unobtainable by the common masses, except perhaps when intoxicated by ether of alcohol. 

This seems an unfortunate and unnecessary classification of spiritual, religious and mystical experiences into psychological states of being - which not every mystic would agree with. While Evelyn Underhill tends at times to lift up the mystical experience to that which is superior to everyday life, in her definition of mysticism as the art of union with reality, she says this is something everyone is doing in an imperfect fashion every moment of their life. 

Wilson Van Dusen sees the problem here to lie more in the definition of the experience, as most experiences of God and Reality are little ones, and he prefers to see what James talks about as reports from mature mystics who have build on these experiences  and made them the core of their lives – yet this is readily available to all.

As I read Williams James in his declaration of independence from the authority of mystical experience, I wonder if this is also an opposition to the authority of his father’s influence, Henry James Sr. 

Henry James was a religious philosopher and had strong connections with Ralph Waldo Emerson and Thomas Carlyle, and was said by George Bernard Shaw to be the best writer in the James family. 

Henry James was independently wealthy and took his family to live in England to broaden his education and after a year there experienced a profoundly deep depression and sense of fear brought on by the feeling that there was “ some damned shape squatting invisible to me within the precincts of the room and raying out his fetid personality influences fatal to life.” (Hoover, 1988) Whatever his son William may have thought of this, it sounds striking familiar to the incubus experience with night terrors and nightmares.

Henry suffered from this experience for two years until a friend offered him to read Divine Love and Wisdom and Divine Providence by Swedenborg. He felt this had an immediate effect on him and  took the writings of Swedenborg as his core spiritual ground and wrote twelve books on Swedenborgian thought and spirituality.

As a young man William was said to be extremely intellectually dependent upon his father, so it is striking that he only mentions Swedenborg twice in all his writings, once in Principle of Psychology and then in Varieties of Religious Experience (Taylor, 1988).  Some authors have argued that William’s works are additions, qualifications or rejoinders to Henry’s Swedenborgian metaphysics, yet I cannot help but wonder why so little is said about the work of Swedenborg overall.

William James is clearly a seminal influence to twentieth century psychology, particularly in America, and along with this is a modern prioneer in extending the new ( and limited “science”) psychology to include spiritual experience as valid and even core to the study of the psyche.

There are certainly many links between Swedenborg and James and perhaps it is the intent of William James to bring his own unique and “modern day” view to psychology and religion, and in doing so leaves out much of what he knows of Swedenborg from his father.